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Discipline Report,
Discipline

Jul. 11, 2022

July Discipline 2022

Recent attorney disbarments, suspensions, probations and public reprovals in California.

DISBARMENT

Dennis Scott Carruthers

State Bar #68745, Stanton (July 1, 2022)

Carruthers was disbarred after a contested proceeding. He was originally charged with seven counts of professional misconduct--though one of the counts was voluntarily dismissed by the State Bar.

In the instant case, he was found culpable of the remaining violations: obstructing the State Bar's access to evidence, suppressing discoverable evidence, seeking to mislead a judge, and engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, as well as two counts involving moral turpitude: seeking to mislead the State Bar and to mislead the courts by making multiple misrepresentations and omissions.

In the underlying matter, Carruthers was principal of a law firm providing debt collection services to creditors. With his approval, one of his employees customarily used a pseudonym, "Brian Bell," when conducting debt collection efforts. He used the pseudonym when dealing with a woman who informed him she had filed for bankruptcy--and offered contact information for her bankruptcy attorney. The faux Mr. Bell insisted that the bankruptcy filing was irrelevant, then threatened to garnish her wages. In an attempt to prevent this, she gave him her debit card number to secure funds; the withdrawals caused two overdraft fees to her account.

The woman then sued Carruthers and his firm in the bankruptcy court for violating the automatic stay and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Despite having notice of this, "Brian Bell" contacted the woman again--again charging her debit card. Carruthers did not answer or appear in the matter, and the bankruptcy court entered a default against him, noting that his conduct was "both egregious and malicious, and his status as an attorney makes it more so."

State Bar investigators then began probing the situation, asking for more information about Brian Bell. Carruthers responded, falsely, that Bell had previously been an account representative at the firm, but no longer worked there. The investigator made several additional calls and written requests to Carruthers for more information--including an inquiry related to a new complaint about Brian Bell--to which he gave false or misleading responses.

In aggravation, Carruthers has a record of two prior disciplines, committed multiple acts of misconduct in the present case that significantly harmed the administration of justice, and demonstrated both a lack of insight and lack of candor in processing the misconduct allegations.

In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation related to facts and admission of documents.

Victoria Chan

State Bar #255765, San Gabriel (July 1, 2022)

Chan was summarily disbarred. She had earlier pled guilty to committing conspiracy to commit visa fraud (18 U.S.C. §§ 371, 1546(a), and 1349); conspiracy to commit wire fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1343); and aiding and abetting money laundering (18 U.S.C. §§ 1956(a)(2)(A) and 2).

The Office of Chief Trial Counsel of the State Bar provided certified copies of the judgment and probation commitment and court case docket--sufficient proof that the convictions had become final.

All three offenses are felonies involving moral turpitude.

James DeAguilera

State Bar #166315, Redlands (June 17, 2022)

DeAguilera was disbarred after appealing a hearing judge's decision finding him culpable of five counts of professional misconduct related to two client matters and recommending disbarment. The appellate panel found him culpable of failing to give a client a prompt accounting of advanced fees, failing to deposit cash held for a client's business into a client trust account, and misrepresenting material facts to his client--an act involving moral turpitude.

The instant case, with its voluminous record, had its roots in 2014 when the first notice of disciplinary charges were filed against DeAguilera, alleging two counts of professional misconduct. That matter was abated and later consolidated with a second charge involving 11 counts of misconduct related to three clients. The State Bar's Office of Chief Trial Counsel ultimately moved to dismiss six of the counts, and the hearing judge dismissed both of the counts specified in the original case.

The matters in which culpability was found arose from DeAguilera's representation of clients who were seeking to operate medical marijuana dispensaries in Southern California.

One of the clients eyed dispensaries as a good business prospect, but had no previous related experience. He hired DeAguilera for "corporate services" to create a mutual benefit nonprofit corporation so that he and his partner could open a dispensary operation. The client signed three identical "fixed-fee agreements" that contained conflicting provisions as to whether payments under it were retainer or advanced fees. Cover letters accompanying the agreements specified that the client would be billed for each phase of representation as it was undertaken. The client paid $1,000 as a fixed-fee retainer when signing the first agreement, and $5,000 upon signing the second one.

The client had saved $50,000 in cash for the business venture, which DeAguilera urged him to bring to his office for safekeeping. The client did so, specifying that none of the money was to be used for legal fees, which were to be billed separately. DeAguilera placed the money in a locked box in his office; no part of it was deposited into a client trust account. When property was located to lease for the business, DeAguilera cut a check for $27,400, and the client paid the lessor with it. DeAguilera assured the client and lessor that the remainder of the funds would be held for rent and building improvement payments.

The client then realized he would need more funds to operate the business--and requested a refund of $3,600. DeAguilera responded with an inaccurate and misleading accounting. The next day, DeAguilera sent another message to the client, stating he had filed a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief; in fact, the action was filed 9 days later. The hearing judge and panel on appeal found that DeAguilera spent the remaining balance of $22,600 on legal fees or matters unrelated to the client's dispensary; the charge of misappropriation, however, was dismissed upon independent review.

In the second client matter, DeAguilera represented an operator of a medical marijuana dispensary for "corporate services" and to file a declaratory relief action to quiet the city's violation notices--signing a "fixed-fee agreement" identical to the ones in the other matter. The complaint was drafted but not filed when the client opted to switch tactics. The client's new attorney sought an accounting of $2,500 of the advanced fees paid; DeAguilera tendered the accounting about a year after the client filed a complaint with the State Bar in the matter.

In aggravation, DeAguilera had two prior records of discipline, committed multiple acts of wrongdoing in the instant matter, lacked insight into the misconduct at issue, and exhibited a lack of candor to the court during trial.

In mitigation, he was allotted the "slightest weight" for evidence offered by four character witnesses, who did not represent a range in the legal and general communities, were acquainted with DeAguilera for only a short time, and seemed unaware of the full extent of the misconduct at issue.

Thomas Vincent Girardi

State Bar #36603, Los Angeles (July 1, 2022)

Girardi was disbarred by default. He did not file a response to the notice of disciplinary charges covering 14 violations of the State Bar Act and Rules of Professional Conduct occurring in three separate client matters.

The State Bar Court judge determined that the charges had been properly filed and served--including notice to his temporary conservator. The attorney for the conservator acknowledged receiving notice of the initial status conference in the case, as well as the motion for entry of default, but stated neither he nor the conservator intended to participate in the proceedings.

In addition, Girardi did not answer or participate in the proceedings, either in person or through counsel, nor did he move to have the default entered against him set aside or vacated.

The factual allegations in the charges were then admitted and deemed true. Girardi was found culpable of all counts charged. His wrongdoing included: disobeying a court order; two counts each of failing to participate in the State Bar's investigation of the wrongdoing alleged, and failing to promptly pay settlement funds to clients; and three counts of failing to maintain the requisite balance in his client trust account.

Four additional counts involved moral turpitude: falsely stating the amount he was entitled to receive under a fee agreement, misrepresenting to opposing counsel that he had paid parties all funds due, misrepresenting the status of settlement funds, and misappropriating more than $2,339,365 in client funds.

When Girardi was disbarred, he had one previous record of discipline, and there were also other non-public disciplinary matters pending against him.

Mindy Gay Kennedy-Alvarez

State Bar #218509, Laguna Niguel (July 1, 2022)

Kennedy-Alvarez was disbarred by default after she failed to participate, either in person or through counsel, in her disciplinary proceeding.

The State Bar Court judge determined that all procedural and notice requirements had been met and that there was an adequate factual basis for disciplinary misconduct in the case. Kennedy-Alvarez did not seek a motion to have the default entered against her set aside or vacated.

She was found culpable of 10 counts of professional misconduct--all related to a single client matter. Her wrongdoing included failing to maintain client funds in trust, failing to obey a court order, failing to render an accounting of client funds, and representing a client without disclosing in writing a relationship with a party or witness in the same matter; three counts of commingling personal funds in her client trust account; and three counts involving moral turpitude: misappropriating client funds, and making material misrepresentations to both her client and while testifying during a deposition.

There was one State Bar investigation pending against Kennedy-Alvarez when she was disbarred.

Melissa F. Mack

State Bar #206250, Alameda (July 1, 2022)

Mack was disbarred by default after she failed to appear at the trial of the 10 counts of professional misconduct she was alleged to have committed.

The State Bar Court judge determined that all procedural requirements were met and that there was an adequate factual basis for imposing discipline in the case. Mack had appeared for an initial status conference, but then failed to file at a subsequent settlement conference, and failed to file a pretrial statement or an exhibit list as required. Though she sought two continuances in the proceedings, Mack did not appear at court-scheduled conferences, despite informing the court that she would participate telephonically and despite the court's multiple attempts to reach her. She did not provide documentation from a medical provider that the court requested to evaluate whether she was able to engage in the proceedings.

A default order was eventually entered against Mack, and she did not move to have it set aside or vacate.

She was then found culpable of all counts charged. Her wrongdoing included failing to perform legal services with competence, seeking to mislead a judge, failing to obey a court order, and failing to maintain client funds in trust. An additional six counts involved moral turpitude: making material misrepresentations to a court, to a court clerk, to an insurance company, and to her clients; as well as impersonating another attorney, and misappropriating funds belonging to her clients.

Peter L. Nisson

State Bar #62276, Costa Mesa (July 1, 2022)

Nisson was disbarred after he was found culpable of professional misconduct related to three separate client matters. One of the charges was dismissed as not backed by clear and convincing evidence, but he was determined to be culpable of the 12 remaining counts.

Specifically, his wrongdoing included: failing to inform a client of significant developments in a case, failing to render a prompt accounting of client funds, failing to act with reasonable diligence in representing a client, failing to obey a court order, and appearing for a client without authorization; two counts of failing to release clients' files after being requested to do so, and three counts of failing to perform legal services with competence. An additional two counts involved moral turpitude: making material misrepresentations to a court and seeking to mislead a judge.

In one client matter, Nisson substituted in as counsel to represent a client alleging wrongful mortgage practices; she was formerly represented by a law firm that had filed the original action on behalf of more than 800 plaintiffs, but the firm subsequently closed. The client paid Nisson a total of $8,700 in an initial down payment and monthly payments following that. However, he then failed to respond to a request for discovery and a motion to deem admissions admitted, failed to represent the client at an order to show cause hearing, failed to respond to a motion for summary judgment or adjudication, and failed to inform the client of sanctions imposed in the case. The matter was eventually dismissed.

In another matter, Nisson was retained to handle a disputed family trust, Though the client terminated services about three months later, Nisson subsequently appeared in a court call and filed an order in the case. Nisson provided the client with an accounting of his services only after State Bar investigators intervened to help secure the information.

The State Bar Court opinion underscored that a third case, involving a bankruptcy client, involved the most serious allegations of wrongdoing. In that matter, Nisson substituted in as counsel, moving to dismiss an initial bankruptcy petition and filing another one on the client's behalf. That petition was dismissed due to several defects the court enumerated, and which Nisson fail to correct within the allotted time. Nisson then filed a third bankruptcy petition, which the court also found defective--citing specifics, which Nisson also failed to correct. In subsequent hearings on an order to show cause connected to the court's concerns about Nisson's performance, he submitted a sworn declaration that included false statements about receiving client confirmations before filing the bankruptcy petitions and that he had assigned another attorney as appearance counsel in the matter. He also filed a subsequent contradictory declaration asserting that he had not personallhy authorized the second and third bankruptcy filings.

The parties entered into a stipulation as to the failure to perform legal services with competence that specified numerous errors and omissions in Nisson's handling of the case.

In aggravation, Nisson showed no insight or recognition of his wrongdoing, committed multiple acts of misconduct that caused substantial harm to two vulnerable clients, and had been disciplined by the State Bar for professional misconduct twice previously.

In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation and was allotted moderate mitigating weight for performing some pro bono services with an organization with which he also had a business relationship.

William L. Reiland

State Bar #258707, Visalia (July 1, 2022)

Reiland was disbarred by default after he failed to participate, either in person or through counsel, in his disciplinary proceeding. He did not move to have the default subsequently entered against him set aside or vacated.

The State Bar Court judge determined that all procedural requirements, including adequate notice, had been met in the case, and that there was an adequate factual basis for a finding of disciplinary misconduct.

Reiland was found culpable of both counts of misconduct charged. Specifically, he failed to comply with conditions imposed in an earlier disciplinary order by failing to submit five written quarterly reports when due, and also failed to cooperate in the State Bar investigation of the misconduct alleged.

Reiland had one prior record of discipline for professional misconduct at the time he was disbarred.

SUSPENSION

Joni Sue Ackerman

State Bar #117730, Manhattan Beach (July 1, 2022)

Ackerman was suspended for six months and placed on probation for two years after she stipulated to being convicted of two counts of theft (Cal. Penal Code § 484(a)). The violations occurred on two separate occasions.

Before referring the instant matter for hearing, the State Bar's Review Department determined that the offenses involved moral turpitude.

In the first instance, Ackerman entered a department store carrying a used shopping bag. Visiting various areas of the store, she selected and concealed several items in the bag: lingerie, nightgowns, and a belt valued at a total of $615. After leaving one of the fitting rooms, she proceeded to a cash register, where a clerk issued a credit to her account for a nightgown she had returned. Security officers who stopped Ackerman outside the store and reviewed her charge card record for the previous six months noted that she had been refunded nearly $2,850 in one month; they also recovered several credit slips that were not accompanied by receipts or the proper coding.

In the second matter, which occurred approximately eight years later, Ackerman entered a department store, and concealed a pair of ladies' shorts valued at $30 in a shopping bag, then left the store without paying for them. The store's Loss Prevention Agent signed a private person arrest, after which the court sentenced Ackerman to two years of informal probation, with conditions. After she violated the probation by failing to provide a progress report on her counseling, the court added an obligation to perform 120 hours of community service, which she completed after obtaining an extension of time to comply.

In aggravation, Ackerman had a prior record of discipline and was given additional aggravating weight for the uncharged violations of failing to self-report the theft convictions within 30 days as required.

In mitigation, she entered into a pretrial stipulation and has not had any further discipline or known criminal misconduct in the last 17 years--which the court noted "is significant such that an inference of rehabilitation can be reasonably drawn and reflets that she has not been a danger to the public for an extended period of time."

Christopher Steven Hernandez

State Bar #298370, Riverside (July 1, 2022)

Hernandez was suspended from the practice of law for 60 days and placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to committing seven acts of misconduct related to three client matters.

His wrongdoing included: failing to act with reasonable diligence when representing a client, failing to promptly respond to a client's reasonable inquiries, accepting payment for legal services from a third party without first obtaining the client's written consent, and two counts each of collecting retainer fees denominated as "non-refundable," and receiving and depositing fee payments into his personal account without securing written agreements that the clients had the right to have the funds held in trust until earned.

In one case, Hernandez was hired to help a client secure a U-visa. Over the next four years, the client sent a number of email messages and texts to him, asking for an update on the status of her case, but he did not respond--nor did he respond to a request by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for additional information in the case. The USCIS eventually denied the U-visa petition on the grounds that it was abandoned, and also denied the client's employment authorization. The visa was subsequently approved after she retained a new attorney.

The salient facts in the two other client cases were substantially similar: Hernandez was retained to handle dissolution matters, and their fee agreements stated that no legal representation would begin until the clients paid a "non-refundable flat fee retainer." Hernandez deposited the funds received into his own account, rather than in a client trust account. In one case, the fees were paid by a third party, without the client signing a written waiver acknowledging the payment arrangement. In neither case did Hernandez discuss with the clients where the funds would be deposited, nor did he disclose that they had a right to require that the flat fee be deposited in an identified trust account until earned and that they would be entitled to a refund of any unearned fees.

In aggravation, Hernandez committed multiple acts of wrongdoing--in one matter, involving a client who was highly vulnerable due to her uncertain immigration status.

In mitigation, he entered into a prefiling stipulation, submitted evidence of performing community and altruistic services, and was allotted limited mitigating weight for letters from 16 individuals vouching for his good character--most of whom were not aware of the full extent of the wrongdoing alleged in the instant case. Some additional mitigating weight was allotted Hernandez for taking proactive remedial steps by hiring additional office staff, completing continuing education courses on managing a law practice, and opening a client trust account.

Teodoro Torres Laguatan

State Bar #95370, South San Francisco (July 1, 2022)

Laguatan was suspended for six months and placed on probation for two years after he was found culpable of six of the 15 counts of professional misconduct with which he had been charged--all related to a single matter.

His culpability included breaching a fiduciary obligation to a client, failing to disclose a potential conflict of interest in writing to the client, making threats to gain advantage in a civil dispute, and overreaching--misconduct involving moral turpitude, as well as two counts of violating probate laws.

The underlying matter involved a number of issues related to a will Laguatan drafted for a longtime friend, who was hospitalized and near the end of his life. The friend had executed a holographic will naming two cousins and Laguatan to serve as co-executors. About seven months later, after the friend was admitted to a hospital, suffering from serious ailments, he asked Laguatan for help in drafting a new will. The two consulted for about an hour, with Laguatan taking notes--then asking an experienced probate attorney to type up the new will. That will reduced the distribution amounts for several of the beneficiaries, added two testamentary gifts, and changed the residuary clause; as drafted, the residuary was to go to Laguatan "whom I completely trust to manage and dispose of the estate according to guidelines relating to Christian humanitarian charitable principles which we both agree on and accede to."

Before being admitted to the hospital, the friend had discussed selling one of his properties to Laguatan's daughter, who was a realtor. However, after the friend was hospitalized, his cousin told the daughter he was in no condition to finalize the escrow papers in the deal. The friend executed a power of attorney naming the cousin as attorney-in-fact; the next day, he executed a revocation that Laguatan had prepared, which also specified that the sale of the real estate should proceed. Laguatan then wrote the cousin an email message, threatening legal action in response to any legal action instituted.

A hospital social worker then intervened in the dispute, seeking opinions from two doctors about the friend's legal capacity to sign the escrow papers; both agreed he lacked the required capacity at the time. The legal documents finalizing the sale were not executed before the friend's death, despite several attempts by the daughter to do so.

In a subsequent contested matter, the cousin petitioned to probate the previous holographic will. The trial court, appellate court, and superior court all ruled in favor of invalidating the new will--finding that a presumption of undue influence was triggered because it made a donative transfer to Laguatan, who had drafted the document.

In recommending discipline with actual suspension, the State Bar Court judge noted that "the gravamen of the misconduct here was Laguatan's single-minded purpose in completing the real estate transaction" when his friend and client "lacked capacity to see it through."

In aggravation, Laguatan committed multiple acts of wrongdoing involving a vulnerable client and demonstrated indifference to the consequences of his misconduct.

In mitigation, he had practiced law for more than 30 years without a record of discipline and presented evidence of some pro bono work.

Anat Resnik

State Bar #192047, Encino (July 1, 2022)

Resnik was suspended from practicing law for 60 days and placed on probation for one year after she stipulated to committing five acts of professional misconduct related to one client matter and a probation violation.

Specifically, she was culpable of accepting payment of legal fees from a third party without first obtaining the client's written consent, failing to provide the client with an accounting of advanced fees, failing to respond to numerous requests from the client for case updates, and failing to refund unearned advance fees.

In the probation matter, she failed to contact and meet with her assigned probation officer for an initial meeting, failed to submit a declaration verifying that she had reviewed portions of the Rules of Professional Conduct and Business and Professions Code as directed, and failed to timely submit two quarterly written reports to the Office of Probation.

In the client matter, Resnik was hired to represent a client in a dissolution of marriage. The client's father paid the advanced fees of $7,945 plus court filing fees, though the client did not give an informed written consent to the arrangement. Approximately 10 months later, the client terminated Resnik's services and requested a final billing statement and refund. Over the next three months, the client sent 20 email messages and made multiple phone calls to Resnik seeking information about the case, but she did not respond. He obtained a refund check more than a year after services were terminated and after a complaint had been filed with the State Bar alleging misconduct in the matter.

In aggravation, Resnik had a prior record of discipline, which was allotted substantial aggravating weight because "they occurred very clearly after the imposition of prior discipline," and committed multiple acts of misconduct that significantly harmed clients.

In mitigation, she entered into a pretrial stipulation, provided a total of 16 letters from a range of individuals in the legal and general communities (combined in the present and previous discipline matters) attesting to her good character and pro bono work, and expressed remorse for harm her actions caused to clients. She also took remedial action related to law office management to help ensure the misconduct did not recur.

PROBATION

Matthew David Razo

State Bar #308785, Santa Ana (July 1, 2022)

Razo was placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to committing one act of professional misconduct by failing to timely comply with numerous conditions imposed in an earlier disciplinary order--a public reproval.

Specifically, he failed to contact, schedule, and participate in an initial meeting with his assigned probation deputy; failed to review specified Rules of Professional Conduct and Business and Professions Code as directed; failed to submit three quarterly written reports as well as a final written report to Probation; and failed to attend the State Bar Ethics School as mandated.

After receiving a letter from the Office of Probation reminding him of the reproval conditions and their deadlines, Razo contacted his probation officer--and eventually satisfied all reproval conditions that had been imposed.

In aggravation, Razo committed multiple acts of wrongdoing and had a prior record of discipline.

In mitigation, he entered into a prefiling stipulation and belatedly complied with the reproval conditions imposed.

--Barbara Kate Repa

#368916

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